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The history of coding and the military

Hack Reactor

By Kevin Juhasz for Hack Reactor

The military used to be a lot different.

For a long time, cutting technology was a guy on a horse. 

Wanted to communicate with soldiers hundreds of miles away? Guy on a horse. 

Wanted to see what enemy troops were up to? Guy on a horse.

The telegraph made a difference. It allowed communication to travel quickly over long distances. To get that set up, though, you needed a bunch of guys and a bunch of horses. 

Over the last 75 years, technology has made leaps and bounds that have made the military a far cry from the days of guys on horses.

The internal combustion engine and flight were big strides for the military, as they were for the rest of the world.  But in national defense, technology has often been taken to the highest level. Large amounts of new tech have been introduced over the last few decades. From GPS to biorecognition receptors to 3D printing, the military is constantly finding ways to make operations and defense more efficient.

Many of these advancements are made possible by software engineers. Some advancements have been made by the military branches themselves, while a lot more are being created by defense contractors. Four of the top 10 companies hiring software engineers are defense contractors. The private sector pays significantly better than the public sector, so it’s private companies that are getting the best software engineers.


The ways that software engineering has helped the military throughout history has been massive. After World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War, technology and software have been driving factors for military advancement. Software has reached the point where it’s touched nearly every aspect of the system. 

Software has been developed that has reduced the number of fighters and casualties in battle. It has provided vast amounts of information and ways to organize and analyze that data. It has provided soldiers to move faster and easier. It has made it possible for the military to locate where all of its equipment and soldiers are located and analyze how they are functioning.


The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network is easily one of the biggest advancements in military history, because it changed not only the military but also changed the world of communications in all aspects. Given the gigantic size of the computers in the 1950s, researchers began to explore ways to transfer information that didn’t require traveling to a computer to retrieve it. To give you an idea of how big they were, the first commercial computer introduced in 1951 weighed in at 8 tons. The Defense Department was also concerned that nuclear war would make communication difficult, so they wanted the ability to transfer information after the bombs began to fall. ARPANET started development in the early 1960s and began operations at the end of the decade.

Other nations were developing similar systems. The movement of information has gone through dozens of advancements, but 1983 was the year that TCP/IP was introduced and the Internet we know today was born.


In June 1993, the United States launched the 24th satellite, the last one in a project that began 30 years earlier. The concept of global positioning began in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik, but it wasn’t until 1963 when the Aerospace Corporation gave its study on the system that would eventually become the modern GPS. 

The Navy had been using satellites since 1959 for positioning of submarines, which wasn’t nearly as efficient or fast as GPS today. The system worked so well that at the start of the 1990s, the Department of Defense intentionally reduces the accuracy of GPS over fears that the enemy would take advantage of the system.

Today, there is an extensive variety of GPS software that is available for whatever a government or company needs to use the system for. These systems not only work to help with tracking but can collect data to help with management.


Right now, there are around 950 satellites orbiting the Earth. How many are military? It’s not exactly known, because the reason they’re up there isn’t always known. Some are satellites used just for the military. Some are satellites that have civilian and military use. We know that about 30 of them are for GPS – the 24 that the system uses and back-up satellites in case any of them fail. The best rough guess available right now is that the United States military has about 150 reserved for their purposes with most of those orbiting in the 600-1,200-mile range.

Satellites were very simple in the beginning. The first military satellites launched in the 1950s were used for just reconnaissance. They didn’t even transmit pictures back to Earth. Instead, the satellite took photos and they were dropped back to Earth via parachute. Well, they were until the early 70s, when the military detected a Soviet sub stationed beneath one of the drop points.

Besides reconnaissance, the United States, along with other nations, have satellites providing several tasks, including communications, early-warning systems that detect ICBM launches, and probably things that only a handful of people know about. One thing you won’t find (yet) is satellites that are weapons. Treaties have banned them since 1967.


Missiles were another defense system that was deployed as the cold war heated up. Today’s missiles use sophisticated systems to guide them toward their target, but it wasn’t always that way. Early missile systems were a lot of work.

Flint Whitlock, a former Air Defense Artillery Officer with the U.S. Army, was stationed at the Nike Hercules base in West Germany during the Vietnam War. The computer system used to control that system was significantly more difficult to handle. First, the system was programmed using punch cards. The system was also designed to be portable, but that had a much different meaning in the 1960s.

“We had two different types of computers,” Whitlock explained. “One was missile tracking radar and the other was a target tracking computer. And they were each housed in a van the size of a moving van.”

The system was meant to be moved out into the field to provide defense for Europe from any Soviet attacks. Whitlock says that in the two years he worked at the base, the entire system was only sent out into the field a couple of times.

“It was supposedly transportable,” he added. “I just was glad we never had to use it.” 

When it comes to controlling missiles, the military has been a little slower to upgrade the technology on past systems. It was only a few years ago that the nation’s nuclear missiles finally had the 70s-era floppy disks that controlled them replaced. Today, of course, new systems that are deployed, whether for defense or attack, are more advanced and laser-guided.


The first drones were very primitive – unmanned hot-air balloons that carried bombs toward their targets. Not exactly the control or reliability we see with the more modern version we use today. The evolution of drones started in the 1950s with radio-controlled planes that could be used for reconnaissance. It would take a great leap in the 1970s, when Abraham Karem emigrated to the United States after failing to sell his designs to the Israeli army. A few years after coming to the United States, Karem designed the Albatross, a drone with a long wingspan that allowed to also function as a glider and stay in the air for two days.

Karem would eventually go to work for General Atomics and introduce the world to the Predator drone. For almost 25 years, the Predator was the main drone used by the United States. In 2018, production was ended, and the Reaper took its place as the drone of preference. Even so, the Predator is still widely used today.

Computers and software are of great importance to the function of modern drones. They either play a large part in the ability for the military to control them remotely or they have systems that are programmed to allow for partial or complete autonomous flights. This technology has its ups and downs. On one hand, it has saved the U.S. military from having to deploy soldiers for some attacks. On the other, the drone is also responsible for an increase in civilian deaths in these attacks.


A more recent introduction to the military, simulators have proven to be helpful in training for all aspects of the military. The simulators and the software they use become more and more advanced, making it easy for the various branches to simulate flights for their aircraft and create virtual cities and towns where soldiers can hone their skills in the area of ground combat.

Simulators have become small enough and light enough to transport to almost any location around the globe and wearable simulators are starting to make that easier. Simulators also help the military to better prepare for the future of combat, creating cybersecurity scenarios, and how to combat them.


The most recent technology introduced by the military is robotic mules. The Army will introduce 600 robotic military mules called Small Multipurpose Equipment Transports starting next year. The mules run on batteries, but they’re not the quickest robots, traveling only 8 mph. The biggest benefit of the robotic mules is their ability to carry 1,000 pounds of gear and equipment. The Army estimates that the mules will reduce the gear carried by soldiers by about 100 pounds.


Night vision has made a major difference in how the military functions in battles. The technology has been available for almost a century, but it’s popularity expanded when the United States entered the first Gulf War in the early 90s. Thermal imaging is another device that is used to help soldiers see, but eliminates the need for light to make it work, relying on heat signatures instead. The military has numerous thermal imaging devices to choose from, several of which incorporate GPS systems into their viewing. Thermal imaging cameras rely on digital image processing to improve the quality of images produced. There is also software that can take images from thermal imaging and present in ways that fits the user’s needs better.

Today, U.S. military members interested in software engineering can check out the LevelUp Software Engineering Career Skills program and Veterans can access Hack Reactor's bootcamps using VA benefits like VET TEC and the G.I. Bill.